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17 Back to school

All of a sudden, it was that time again, finding uniforms didn’t fit, smart shoes were scuffed and tight round her toes, white knee-socks had no elastic and that all her pencils had broken leads. Yellow HB pencils – they were never the same as when they were new out of the box, beautifully sharpened to an exquisite point.

Going back to school was one of those times Elisha dreaded. She felt scared about it, unsure – would it be the same? Would she and her friends still get on or would something have happened over the summer to change them? She’d have a new form teacher who maybe wouldn’t be as nice as her old one. Nervously, she combed tangles out of her hair after her shower as she worried about things that could go wrong.

They hadn’t managed to get away anywhere all summer. It didn’t really bother her as much as she’d thought it would in the end. But her parents seemed different somehow – the way they looked at each other over her head. They were preoccupied with money matters, making calculations in notebooks, looking at creditcard statements, waiting for red bills. Her dad would spend ages each morning going through papers looking at the job sections, ringing ads in black biro before calling people up about them. He kept playing an old LP, singing along to some of the songs, especially one that said he had to ‘get back in the line’. She thought the song sounded sad, the one about champagne and Coca-Cola was more fun and her favourite was about being an apeman. But, strangely, it always seemed to cheer her dad up. Her mum would sometimes sing too. She said it wasn’t so bad when everyone was in the same boat. Elisha knew what she meant but surely it would have been safer if not so many people were in the boat.

It meant it was normally afternoon before they could go anywhere for a day out. Other days he’d had to go to the employment exchange in the next town – this seemed to take all morning too – and when he got back he’d be in a bad mood, snapping at everyone.

Last night, her mum had scrawled out a list of things not to forget, on a piece of laminated yellow paper, from her pile of rough paper, the clear back-sides of junk-mail circulars.

It felt so weird being in school clothes again. She was in the green checked summer uniform school dress, with a dark green v-neck sweater over it. They were having what her mum called an ‘Indian summer’, unseasonably warm and humid, sun-filled days that only turned cold in the evenings long after she was home from school.

But even odder was having her mum come to school with her, asking Elisha if she was dressed okay, worrying about make-up and perfume, and what to say to the pupils. Although pleased she’d got the job, Elisha was in two minds over whether it would work out. It was introducing someone from her home realm into the school world, which she thought of as completely separate, where she could really be a different person. She worried about how other kids would react to her mum being there. But she had to concede that her mum looked great, her ash-blonde hair twisted up into a chignon, in a long, flowing dark-green maxi skirt and cork-soled green platform sandals. She thought she must be the best-looking mum in the world, let alone the best-looking dinner lady.

Her dad hadn’t managed to get a proper job as yet. In the end he’d had to take a rather menial position that he kept saying was just temporary. He was working in a factory on the other side of town, mainly doing night shifts so that she would sometimes hear him come in, about 6.30 in the morning, his key rattling briefly in the front-door Chubb lock before connecting, being very quiet, closing the door gently behind him.

Normally he’d be in the kitchen when she got down for breakfast, would be starting off coffee and stuff, but looking tired and a bit defeated despite his attempts at cheeriness. She noticed a few white hairs at his temples and deeper lines around his eyes. As he poured her a glass of juice one morning, his hand shook very slightly. It was one of those unusually shaped smoky brown petrol station glasses. They were her favourites so that she reached and took it from him in case he dropped it.

Then he would go to bed for a while, mid-morning to late afternoon, before getting up and having something to eat prior to his next shift.

Her mother too seemed weary – she frowned more frequently than before and her voice had a slight edge to it, like she was teetering on the brink of a crevasse. Her kind brown eyes also seemed clouded and troubled more often.

Elisha knew she had to try to do something to help.

The thought of the school bell was like a death knell to the holiday. Ominous yet at the same time triumphant. It made Elisha’s heart beat fast under her dress and sweater.

When it came down to it, it was exciting to see her friends again though. They rushed towards her in the playground before the bell, both chattering at once, bursting with holiday news.

Jasmine’s hair was in beautiful cornrows, with different primary-coloured beads strung on the ends. Apparently, it was normally very expensive but her mum was friends with a hairdresser who did it for free. But they were all a bit worried that the school might object to the colours.

And Luke. He’d completely changed. For a long time he’d seemed to Elisha like one of those balloons that had somehow survived a birthday party and the general cruel popping at the end of the afternoon. Ever since he’d been in a slow, sad decline, doomed to shrink a little every day, gradually diminishing towards nothingness. Losing air, relinquishing life.

Now suddenly it was as if someone was blowing him up again – pumping air back into him, plumping out his flesh, making him new once more. The boy he’d been before.

Elisha didn’t think she could be the only one who’d noticed his rejuvenation. His hair had grown longer and thicker, his arms were less skinny, face less pinched – he’d kind of filled out, like those women who used Oil of Ulay on TV. And he smiled more often and more widely than for the last few months. Whereas before she hadn’t liked to look at him because he made her miserable, now she actually found his face, his presence cheered her up.

Also she wanted to ask his advice about what to do. He already knew about (and believed in) the well and had experienced its magic. In fact, it was as if the well had selected him and drawn him in without Elisha saying anything. So perhaps it was all right to consult him. If she just followed the rules on the paper, surely things would work out fine?

She cornered him at the morning break, finding him on a low wall by the playground, eating a Milky Way that had partly melted from being left in his bag in the sun by the class window all morning. The chocolate was leaving dark-brown gloops on his fingers that he had to lick up. He was sucking some off his right thumb when Elisha joined him.

It was hard to talk about her family situation to an outsider. But with Luke it seemed a bit easier – he listened without interrupting much until she’d finished, then crumpled the chocolate wrapper into a ball while pursing his lips and obviously thinking hard.

‘So, your dad needs a better job, swiftish?’

Was this all it really boiled down to? She nodded.

‘And you want to know if the rules allow you to wish for it?’

‘Yes, without something bad happening by mistake.’

‘Have you got them with you?’

‘Er, no. I didn’t want to lose them … ‘ She really wasn’t as good at planning things as she’d thought. Her attempts to remember the verse were not impressive and Luke’s face registered this fact with a progressively more pained and exasperated expression.

‘Look, bring it in tomorrow and we can go over it,’ he finally said, cutting her off as she mumbled, ‘One good turn forgets another.’

‘Sorry. There was so much to remember this morning. And I couldn’t tell my mum to write it on the list.’